Spotlight on Age of Reason Studios
I absolutely love this brand and everything it stands for, brilliant, unusual "fun" homewares and fashion but ethically sourced. I have several of the cushions dotted around my home which are always a talking point and one of the things I get requested the source of often when I post on Instagram. It's Ali Mapletoft of Age of Reason Studios, talking about here journey to setting up the business, while bringing up two children and moving to a new house.
1. What was the reason behind you starting your business?
When I started the brand in 2011 it was hard to find exciting, fun ethical fashion and home brands who’s supply chain was transparent. By that I mean being able to see where their stuff was made, and know that it wasn’t made in a sweatshop. Things that were labelled ethical or sustainable tended to be beige or made from hemp, and there didn’t seem to be any logic in that. I think at the time there were cool brands making things ethically but telling that story to the customer was relatively new. There seemed to be very few brands sharing how they were empowering people while making indulgent, gorgeous things. Walking into London or New York department stores 6 years ago and asking where a gorgeous luxury item was made felt like asking whether or not it came from the moon. Even enquiring about British Made scarves in one of London’s oldest department stores had the shop assistant flummoxed, and me slightly embarrassed. She didn’t know, but maybe, possibly, if they phoned a few people they might be able to find out. I was already backing towards the door. Things have changed a lot now, and everyone from your mate’s teenage kids to leading market analysts will tell you that sustainability, ethics, conscious consumers, storytelling, and an empowered work force are global business and marketing trends that are set to grow.
2. How did you start up?, kitchen table? Mum’s garage, renting premises?
Just before I started Age of Reason I’d been working in TV as a commercials and music video director in a struggling industry. I’d recently had a baby and my freelance pay was shrinking by the month. It was just time to get out.
By the time my daughter was about 5 months old she still didn’t sleep well at night. In fact, she woke me up hourly at night for the first 2 years of her life. I really thought I was going mad! We were in an open plan flat in Whitechapel so there was no chance of sleeping through the slightest peep. I’d get up after the 4th or 5th waking and draw on an old drawing table I’d bought on eBay for £20. I wanted to do something entertaining and fun to take my mind of not getting enough sleep, and not having a clue how to parent a small human. I needed total escapism, so I designed 3 scarves depicting bondage clad Russian Dolls. They had nipple chains, gimp masks, suspenders and ball gags. It was really tongue in cheek and silly, I didn’t worry too much about whether anyone would buy them. Around that time, we left London to live in Brighton. We sold our flat and upped sticks in about 4 weeks with no plan. It was great, but we had to take the first flat we could find within our tiny budget, a very dingy little depressing basement flat near the seafront. It was damp, dark, characterless, and you could never tell what the weather was like outside until you actually went outside. But somehow, we made it habitable by hanging my printed scarves around the place to brighten it up. 6 months later, we moved to a beautiful rented flat in the historic Brunswick Square. We had an absolute blast there with the 14 ft. ceilings and huge Regency rooms complete with ceiling roses and cornices. It had boundless sun and a view of the sea. I feel like that’s where Age of Reason grew up, like a plant growing up towards the light. That flat was instrumental to creating the space and mood the brand needed to flourish and for me to think expansively.
3. How did you fund your business?
We’d just sold our London flat. I used the capital to help start the business, printing my first run of “Bondage Doll” scarves and cushions- which turned out to be quite popular.
4. What was the most difficult part of starting up your business? Access to money, advice, finding people to buy, marketing etc?
It’s all difficult, but it’s all possible. Sometimes the hardest thing is just maintaining your journey, sticking to your guns. There’s an enormous amount of knock backs, and rejection especially from big stores. And especially on the fashion side of the business. If you can keep your morale up through that, I think you can do anything. Homeware doesn’t tend to be as ego-crushing as fashion, in the sense that buyers have a little more human compassion when they turn you down. The challenge with homes is always coming up with the must-have piece that people want in their space. It has to be excellent for our customers because they are a discerning bunch, and home is the most personal space.
5. What help was missing for you?
I never really expected anyone to help me, but countless people have. I’ve learnt that people can only help you if you define exactly what you need help with. There’s no magic fairy that comes down and makes everything easy. There’s no shortcuts. But ask a friend or acquaintance for a very specific, realistic, measurable piece of help, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll get it. If the idea is strong enough, other people will see that, and they’ll be attracted towards helping. More recently I’ve been able to hire a design assistant Rene De Lange, who used to work for Marks and Spencer homeware department. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t marvel at M&S’s loss and my gain; I keep half expecting them to come and fetch her back. It’s fantastic to have help with art working larger collections. It’s always been my dream to run a team, and slowly but surely that’s starting to happen. I’ve gone from being a one-woman-band to a team of 3. I’m at the stage now where I feel that coaching and investment advice would be very helpful. With every step comes growth, and inevitably more financial responsibility. But I wouldn’t change that for the world.
6. What went wrong in your first year? Few months if you haven’t been trading that long?
Everything went wrong! But it doesn’t matter, it’s part of the process. Things still go wrong all the time, but I mind less because I know it will pass. I think the worst mistakes I’ve made have been when I’ve assumed I can buy into a shortcut. It ever works. Nothing replaces hard work and relationship building. For example, I made the mistake (twice!) of being stocked in some very prestigious designer shops in London that charge designers a monthly fee to sell on their shelves. There’s no real incentive for these shops to sell anything because their overheads are covered by hopeful new designers. As a new designer who’s still building a profile, you usually get to the end of the month owing that kind of shop money. If I were the Queen for the day I’d outlaw that practice.
Another mistake I made was sticking with a bad web developer for too long. I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to understand how e-commerce works, so I blindly let someone else build and manage it without really grasping how badly run it was. Every tiny change cost me a fortune, the updates were buggy and we were losing loads of sales. I’d often be at loggerheads with an uncommunicative developer who refused to speak on the phone. But I’ve accepted that I made that happen by not taking control. Since then I’ve educated myself on how ecommerce works. Our current website was built by me on Shopify while I was breastfeeding my second daughter. Instead of wasting energy on outsourcing to the wrong person I took it on. Now I understand it, I can outsource it again to the right person.
7. What have you learnt?
I’m still learning all the time. I think it’s best to invest in your product and your people over shortcuts and marketing flim-flam. If I’m buying into an idea, I now have a rule that I have to be buying into a person who’s truly invested in my business. If my gut tells me I’m buying magic beans, I walk away. If I don’t understand the service I’m being asked to pay for I walk away.
8. What is the most important piece of advice that you could give others thinking about starting a business?
Other people’s advice is mostly not helpful because it applies to them not to you. I met Deborah Meaden on the Age of Reason exhibition stand at Best of Britannia a couple of years ago, she told me “Advice is useless”. She also said that I must be doing something right to be still in business. I’ll take that. So, if I have to give one piece of advice, I’d say “Trust yourself.”
9. And what do you enjoy the most?
The most fantastic things happen throughout the process. First here’s the designing, immersing myself in the creative process, drawing, painting; losing myself in the art. Then there’s the sourcing of wonderful materials like the North Ronaldsay wool we use to stuff our cushions- it comes from Orkney beach dwelling, seaweed eating sheep, and is processed in a lighthouse. How cool is that!? Then there’s the end result, when a finished piece goes out into the world and the new owner is delighted. People send us pictures of their home styled with one of our cushions or art prints, and it’s so exciting to see. Or it could be their delighted face as they walk away with a new scarf. That’s the thing that makes it really worthwhile.
10. On a scale of 1-10 how hard do you find it to run your own business?
11, I’m not even kidding. But I love it.
Nicola Says "Ali raises so many good points about starting your own business, having an identifiable brand, sticking to your concept, even though there will be loads of knock backs, taking no short cuts but working hard and building proper relationships with suppliers and customers. Knowing the parts of your business that you are not comfortable with, sometimes it's finance, here it was Ali's website. You don't have to do it all, but knowing enough to be in control is important"
Thanks Ali for sharing your journey.
The Girl with The Green Sofa